The wall paintings that Marc Chagall created in the winter of 1920-21 for the interior of the State Jewish Chamber Theater in Moscow are in marvelous, dreamy, pale colors. These paintings are packed with activity; they present Chagall’s panoramic vision of a Yiddish theater that is a theater of life. Chagall reimagines the old Jewish world of the shtetl in an exaggerated, stylized form, and in the process he creates a modern mythology of origins and transformations.

At the center of the largest, mural-size composition, Introduction to the Jewish Theater, Chagall presents Chagall himself, carried in the arms of the great Russian art critic Abram Efros. The weight of narrative that the artist is holding aloft in these paintings is considerable, yet he carries it easily, as easily as Efros carries Chagall. The paintings are airy and buoyant. At the Guggenheim SoHo, where the seven paintings that make up the ensemble are hung in one room so that we have a good sense of their original arrangement, the initial impression is of a wintry rainbow composed of overlapping planes of violet and celadon and yellow and white and gray.[1] This effect of soft, prismatic light is underscored by the medium: gouache and tempera on canvas. The matte surfaces are in sync with Chagall’s style, which is based on drawing, on complex linear arabesques. Close up, the effect is exhilarating. One moves from incident to incident, relishing the way that Chagall stylizes an arm or a leg, incorporates Hebrew lettering, paints a teeny scene-within-a-scene, or includes passages that are done by pressing paint-dipped pieces of lace against the canvas. Close up the paintings have the assurance of near-masterpieces. Yet as one moves farther away, to see how it all fits together, the effect can be dismaying. The great little incidents and the Cubist play-of-forms don’t exactly add up. It all seems a little tendentious, Rube Goldberg-ish. From a dozen feet away, these extraordinarily interesting paintings look almost banal. Yet the insufficiency of the overall design does not leave one feeling cheated. These Chagalls are full of wonderful things, and though they are not great paintings, they are dazzlingly brilliant and lovable works. They are immensely lovable works. This is the most important thing about them.

What other modern artist gives us such an easy opulence of imagery? Introduction to the Jewish Theater is a view of the life of the theater, including portraits of major figures, such as the Jewish Theater’s director, Alexander Granovsky. What dominates, the scholar Avram Kampf has written, is “the informal air of the commedia dell’arte and its closest Jewish manifestation, the Purim jesters.” Chagall discovers in this Jewish theatrical tradition echoes of other theatrical traditions; he enriches his scene with echoes of Callot’s prints of the commedia dell’arte, of Seurat’s Circus and Sideshow, of Degas, of Picasso’s Saltimbanques, of the front cloth and costumes that Picasso did for Parade in 1916, and perhaps of Sonia Delaunay’s Bal Bullier (1913). Of the other six canvases, four are allegories of the arts that offer Jewish analogies to traditional Western representations of music, dance, drama, and literature. These works tap into a lineage of allegorical decorative cycles that goes back to the Middle Ages and has been transformed by every succeeding period—the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Rococo, the Neoclassical. Another kind of pageantry, the pageantry of a marriage ceremony, is alluded to in the long narrow frieze of a table set for a wedding feast; this painting is both a metaphysical still life in the European tradition and a meditation on Jewish decorative traditions. The last painting, Love on the Stage, is a Constructivist abstraction, through which Chagall has laced his own phantasmagorically narrative imagery. The incandescence of the paintings has to do with Chagall’s obvious sense that everything is open to him. He works unselfconsciously, letting things fall (or maybe rise is a better word) as they may. When he uses a Torah scribe as the figure that represents literature, there is nothing forced about the introduction of a Jewish figure into an allegorical scheme that obviously has pagan roots. The whole adventure of these decorations—which were originally located in the room where the plays were performed—goes on in a magical, elevated place. Traditions meld and interpenetrate in the high, soft, white light.

Chagall did all of this very fast, in a matter of months. In his autobiography he recalled how “I flung myself at the walls … The canvases were stretched out on the floor… . Workers, actors walked over them. Rooms and corridors were in the process of being renovated, piles of shavings mingled with my tubes of paint, with my sketches … I too was stretched out on the floor … I set to work.” The paintings, hanging in the Jewish Chamber Theater, became the center of the changing world of Yiddish theater, which was moving from a period of naturalism into a period of expressionism and abstraction. Opening night at the theater was a Shalom Aleichem triple bill (Mazeltov, The Agents, and The Lie), with sets by Chagall. When the troupe played in Berlin, a critic wrote: “In every theater there are moments when one may relax. Not here. Cubistic liveliness … they talk not only with their hands but almost with their hair, calves, soles, and toes. You think someone is walking and already he is lying down. You think someone is waiting and already he is fleeing.”

Scholars tell us that a new acting style was influenced by Chagall’s style, that actors began to take on the poses, the gestures that they found in his paintings. So in painting decorations for the theater, Chagall was helping to bring about a merger of the plastic and theatrical arts. To Chagall all of this must have seemed the most natural thing in the world. Around 1910, as a young man studying in Saint Petersburg, he’d gotten to know Leon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, and others who were involved in the explosive experiments that, in the form of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, put the theater at the center of the opulent later stages of the Parisian avant-garde. In those years, all over Europe, the theater was a place where new ideas about art and literature were granted, beneath the proscenium arch, a special reality. No wonder an entire continent caught what Jean Cocteau, recalling the décor of the theaters where he’d gone in his youth, called the red and gold disease. It is also no wonder that these paintings of Chagall’s don’t exactly compose. It was all the artist could do, stretched out on the floor of the Jewish Chamber Theater with everything going on around him, to keep his multiple themes in buoyant, glorious motion.

These works—which have never before been seen in the United States—were among the last major ones that Chagall did in Russia. In 1922 he left for good. Both before and after that, he was careful that he should not be typecast as a Jewish artist, as he felt some others in Paris had been or had allowed themselves to be. His attitude was delicate and elusive and canny. He wanted to take his place within international modernism, wanted to be an adopted son of the School of Paris, but also did not want to give up his patrimony. No other artist drew so deeply on the imagery of Eastern European Jewry. No other Jewish artist of his period had such a rich and complex relation to the modernism of Western Europe. By comparison, Soutine and Modigliani and Lipchitz bit off a small piece, and El Lissitzky, though at moments more radical than Chagall, was in no way so deep and nuanced and complex.

Chagall still awaits a definitive assessment. The retrospective organized by Susan Compton in 1985 (it was seen in Philadelphia) left him looking diminished, a modernist who at first almost hit the top and then slid down very far very fast. But I wonder if that show was really fair. It takes a curator with an extraordinary sensitivity to graphic style to pull out the wonderful things—many of which may actually be works on paper. And in order to choose among the later works, which are in an effulgent School of Paris manner, one must appreciate the true value of that kind of style, which I rather doubt Compton does. Another problem is that the pinnacle of the career is the series of stained glass windows in the synagogue of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, which will of course never travel. It is here that it all comes together for Chagall. In Eastern Europe, Jews would prepare a stew called a cholent before the Sabbath, a stew that sat on the fire overnight. This cholent was a primal memory for all the Jews of Eastern Europe. In the South of France, where Chagall spent his later years, he no doubt learned about another kind of stew, the bouillabaisse. Somehow, in his art he managed to bring the beauty of the bouillabaisse (which actually includes unkosher ingredients) into line with the aromatic cholents of his youth. The result was the perfected decorative style of the Hadassah Hospital windows, which represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Edmund Wilson once wrote of Henry James, “Henry James is a first-rank writer in spite of certain obvious deficiencies. His work is incomplete … ; but it is in no respect second-rate, and he can be judged only in company with the greatest.” I think that in the end we will find ourselves saying something along the same lines about Chagall.

The Guggenheim is to be commended for bringing these paintings to New York and for installing them beautifully, in a single room. A second gallery, containing some preparatory drawings and a selection of other works by Chagall, is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, the Guggenheim SoHo has not seen fit to leave this as a two-room show, but has virtually doubled its size by adding, as a kind of pre-exhibit, two more rooms that cover the history of the paintings and the Yiddish theater. Some explanatory wall texts are without a doubt necessary in an exhibit of this kind, but the kind of photo blowups and supergraphics presented here give what is really a brilliant small show an unpleasantly glossy overlay. Just outside the room containing the paintings, emblazoned on the wall in big purple letters, is Chagall’s statement, from his autobiography, about his hopes of doing away “with the old Jewish theater, its psychological naturalism, its false beards. There on these walls I shall at least be able to do as I please and be free to show everything I believe to be indispensable to the rebirth of the national theater.” Chagall’s words are exciting to read, but the presentation of his words, as if they were one of Barbara Kruger’s pieces of wall art, is depressing. If Chagall had wanted to turn his words into a wall piece he would no doubt have done it himself. Those two rooms full of preliminaries are an example of art-world mind control. They’re heavy on historical context, but they don’t prepare viewers at all for what the works look or feel like. That’s probably just as well. Once we turn away from the wall texts we’re enveloped by Chagall’s beautiful imagination. He takes us in hand and we take off.

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  1. “Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theater” opened at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo on September 23 and is on view through January 17, 1993. It will then travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (January 30-May 10, 1993). A catalogue, with essays by Benjamin Harshav and Susan Compton, has been published by the Guggenheim (272 pages, $50; $35 paper). Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 3, on page 46
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